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Hungry Goats Helped Save the Reagan Library From a California Wildfire

Some heroes wear capes, others like to eat flammable weeds

Goats cleared a fire break around the library just in time to hold the blaze back so firefighters could finish the job. (Photo by Al Seib/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

Last week, a raging fire broke out near California’s Simi Valley, one of several wildfires that recently blazed across the state. The conflagration burned through more than 1,800 acres of land. Directly in its path was the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, home to a trove of documents, photographs and artifacts connected to the nation’s 40th president. Fortunately, the institution emerged largely unscathed, thanks in part to a team of weed-eating goats.

In May, anticipating that fires would likely arise in the future, the Reagan foundation sought help from the land-clearing service 805 Goats, which loans out ungulates that are all-too-happy to eat flammable brush. Five hundred goats—which boast names like Vincent Van Goat and Selena Goatmez—were deployed to the area around the Reagan Library, according to Omar Younis and Andrew Hay of Reuters. Their chomping helped create a fire break around the complex.

Last Wednesday, Reagan Library curator Randle Swan headed to work with plans to take part in a national emergency training drill. But when he got to the office, he could see the glow of the so-called “Easy Fire” rising in the distance.

"Instead of doing the emergency planning exercise, we had an actual emergency," Swan tells Jonathan Lloyd of NBC.

It did not take long until the library complex was surrounded by smoke. The library houses an Air Force One jet, a piece of the Berlin Wall, Reagan's presidential and California gubernatorial records, and Nancy Reagan’s wedding ring, to name but a few historic relics. The former president and his wife are also buried on the property.

Firefighters were stationed near the library to battle the encroaching blaze, and helicopter crews dropped water from above. Their efforts were vital to saving the library; though flames got to within 30 yards of the complex, and though the exterior of the library was scorched, no significant damage was done.

But the goats helped, too. “We were told by one of the firefighters that they believe that [goat-created] fire break made their job easier,” Melissa Giller, a spokesperson for the library, tells Younis and Hay. “The brush only went so far, it didn’t reach the library, because the goats ate it all.”

Clearing overgrown grass and weeds is a standard fire-prevention method, and goats are often used to get the job done, the Guardian’s Susie Cagle reported in July. Proponents say that the animals provide a more sustainable alternative to herbicide and a more economically effective alternative to human brush-removal efforts. (A report by officials in Laguna Beach, California, for instance, found that grazing goats cost an average of $550 per acre, compared to $28,000 per acre for “hand treatment expense.”)

“And they’re a lot more fun to watch than people with weed eaters,” Mike Canaday of the California land management company Living Systems, told Cagle.

Goats cannot completely replace other fire-control methods; for one, the number of animals available for the task is limited. But as climate change threatens to make wildfires increasingly intense, finding effective and environmentally friendly prevention options is becoming ever-more important. Though they may not realize it, Vincent van Goat and his similarly voracious cohorts can make a difference. As Giller told CNN after the Reagan Library emerged safe from the Easy Fire, "[The goats] just proved today how useful they really are."

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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